This is a guest post from NatWest. All book photos from Wikipedia.
What with the rise of mobile e-devices, tablets and Kindles, you would be forgiven for thinking that the traditional book is becoming less and less of a marketable commodity. Once the internet got its grubby little mitts on music the CD went the way of disco and quickly died, DVDs were already receiving their last rites when on-demand streaming services like Netflix and Blinkbox popped up and, once e-readers arrived surely books would be going that way very soon, after all you don’t even need working headphones to get the most out of your Kindle. And yet, the traditional book hasn’t quite died out.
It turns out people love reading dead trees way more than they love looking at synthetic plastic. In fact, they just can’t get enough of them. Books, much like vinyl records, still sell for a pretty penny. They remain big business and can sell for big money to people with big bank balances, especially books like…
The First Book of Urizen – William Blake
Willie B (his rarely used MC name) was your typical 18th century tortured poet. In that he wasn’t very successful and was a little eccentric. He also crafted some of the most splendid poetry of the age as well as illustrating his work with some beautiful artistry which adds an aesthetic value to his work you just don’t get when you’re reading a Penguin classic. The First Book of Urizen is one of Blake’s big prophetic pieces (Willie was fond of a good prophecy) and only eight original copies survive. One of those sold for $2.5m at Sotheby’s in New York in 1999.
The Gutenberg Bible – Various
Now you’re probably thinking that if there is one book in the world that there is a healthy supply of it’s the Bible and you would be right. It’s all over the shop, all kinds of shops. However what if you were to get your hands on one of first Bibles (and books) ever to be printed using movable type? And what if said book was one of only 48 copies of the book in the world? Well, you’d probably wind up paying in the region of $4.9m for it, as one fine human did in 1987.
The First Folio – William Shakespeare
It’s always nice when your collected works get a bit of praise. And nothing says praise as much as someone paying millions for your words. When Shakespeare’s first collection of plays went on sale in 1623 it cost about a pound. Of course, that was a small fortune back in the days before electric underwear and Roombas, in fact it would have cost about the equivalent of £100. Although that’s still not quite the same as $6.1m, which is what one of the original copies of the First Folio went for in 2001. It was bought by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who presumably has a few pennies to spare.
Bay Psalm Book – Various
So when it comes to things that sell well you’ve got to tick a few boxes. Rarity is a big one, the rarer the better. If it’s the first of something then that’s a big plus too and if it is really old and has vaguely religious overtones then you’re definitely on to a winner. The Bay Psalm Book ticks all the boxes. It is incredibly rare (there are only 11 surviving versions), it’s really old (printed in 1690) and, get this, it is the first book written and printed in what is now the United States. Also it is a translation of the biblical psalms so has the religious side of things down too.
So how much does all that add up to? It adds up to $14.16m, which makes it the most expensive book ever sold (presuming you don’t count things like the Magna Carta, and DaVinci’s Codex Leicester, which aren’t actually printed and bound books, so why would you count them?). The book was bought by philanthropist David Rubenstein at Sotheby’s in November 2013. He plans to loan it back to various libraries across the US.
The Birds of America – John James Audubon
Containing all kinds of splendid illustrations by naturalist painter John James Audubon the Birds of America was first published as a series of sections between 1827 and 1838. It’s since gone on to become pretty popular and copies of the collected work goes for millions. As you might have guessed there are not many copies left, in fact only 119 copies to be precise. The most expensive version was bought on December 6th 2010 in London and cost $11.5m. As a sign of its popularity, adjusted for inflation, five of the top 10 most expensive books ever would be an original copy of the Birds of America.